top 5 wednesday: Favorite “Unlikable” Protagonists

Hey guys, I’m back! Before I get to this week’s T5W, just a quick note: I haven’t spent very much time online these past 10 days, and it’s probably going to take me a couple of days to get caught up on everything and I’m sure there’s a lot I’m still going to miss, so if there’s anything you really want me to see for whatever reason – your reviews, tags, awards, comments I haven’t responded to, etc. – just leave a comment here with the link, I would really appreciate it. Thanks!!!

Now let’s get to it.

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

June 21st: Favorite “Unlikeable” Protagonists: People always tear down “unlikeable” protagonists. But tell us the ones you pulled for!

I love this topic. I have to admit, I find myself often defending books with ‘unlikable’ characters. To me, a good character isn’t someone I necessarily want to be friends with, but rather, someone who’s well-developed, intriguing, and multi-faceted.  I love each and every one of these characters, even when I don’t particularly like them.

30900136Ava Antipova (Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach). The first thing I tell people who are considering whether or not to read Dead Letters is that if you can’t deal with unlikable characters, you’re going to hate this book. Dead Letters features one of the most dysfunctional family dynamics I’ve ever seen, and this story is filled to the brim with characters who are compelling but at times rather loathsome. The protagonist Ava is no exception. She’s occasionally selfish, hypocritical, and holier than thou… and yet, she is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever seen.  For all her flaws, she has just as many virtues, and she’s three-dimensional enough that I found myself relating to quite a few aspects of her character, even when I didn’t really want to.  For all fans of literary fiction who like their characters as aggravatingly realistic as possible, Dead Letters is a must read.

29441096Ryan Cusack (The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney).  Ugh, my heart hurts just thinking about this character.  At a glance, Ryan is hard to love.  He’s a teenage drug dealer who’s apathetic about his future; he cares deeply about his girlfriend Karine but doesn’t always know how to show it, and ends up making some stupid mistakes.  But what Lisa McInerney does so expertly in this book is depict crime and poverty as a vicious, multi-generational cycle.  It’s clear that Ryan is the way he is because of the way he was raised – and his father is the way he is because of the way he was raised, etc., and it’s heartbreaking because of how unavoidable it all seems.  But there’s still so much good in this character who’s somehow managed to not be irrevocably damaged by everything he’s gone through, and for that reason, I managed to root for Ryan through all his many ups and downs.

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Richard Papen (The Secret History by Donna Tartt).  My knee-jerk reaction to thinking about Richard Papen is ‘ugh, Richard,’ but when I think about it – what would The Secret History have been without him?  Richard anchors this story together in a way that’s absolutely essential to the narrative.  He’s the outsider coming into this tight-knit group of friends, and his instant idolization of their group dynamic is what really allows the story to be set into motion.  Richard’s mere presence in a lot of ways was a catalyst – his idolization in some ways being the justification they all needed to do the things they managed to do.  Richard is self-centered, and willfully blind to horrible things that he had been in a position to prevent, but still he makes for a compelling protagonist.  Surrounded by wealth and luxury, Richard himself comes from a poor background, and this class difference plays heavily into the way he interacts with this group of friends, and it’s difficult to fully condemn him when the temptation to do what they did is laid out so clearly for the reader.

220px-the_girl_on_the_train_28us_cover_201529Rachel (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). I’m still somewhat conflicted about this book, but amid all my mixed feelings, there is one certainty: I love Rachel. I love her. Maybe I was predisposed to like her because we share a name, or maybe I just appreciated seeing such an openly flawed female character in such a mainstream novel – I’m not sure what exactly it was, but I was instantly drawn to Rachel.  Make no mistake, she is frustrating as all hell.  She’s an alcoholic who doesn’t care much about how her addiction affects the lives of those around her, she’s a complete busybody, she’s obsessed with her ex to a positively annoying degree… and yet, all of these things make for one of the most realistic protagonists I’ve ever encountered.  At times I want to take her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, but at the same time, I found it so refreshing to read about a female character who’s been afforded the same depth as so many famous male protagonists.

tender-by-belinda-mckeonCatherine (Tender by Belinda McKeon).  Catherine is so easy to loathe… almost too easy, in fact.  Because to loathe her is to distance yourself as a reader from her many complexities, and I for one would be hypocritical to not own up to the many ways that I related to this character.  Her obsessiveness is almost frighteningly realistic – Tender is told in terse, frantic prose which deteriorates the further you read, as Catherine becomes more and more mentally unstable.  She does some things that are morally reprehensible, and I want to condemn her for them, but I really can’t in good conscience.  This is a book about all the ugly sides of human nature, and you have to be willing to own up to them, because Catherine is almost unnervingly real.

Who are some of your favorite unlikable protagonists?  Comment and let me know!  And again, comment if there’s anything I missed these past 10 days that you’d like me to see!

book review: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins


INTO THE WATER by Paula Hawkins
US pub date: May 2, 2017
Publisher: Riverhead Books
My review on Goodreads

As someone who liked but didn’t love The Girl on the Train, my expectations for Into the Water weren’t particularly high. If anything, I was expecting another entertaining but fairly run of the mill thriller with a predictable outcome. (Honestly, I only added Into the Water to this month’s BOTM box because I loved the cover so much.) But I loved this, and if I was secretly expecting Paula Hawkins to rest on her laurels a little bit with her sophomore novel, I was proved very, very wrong. Into the Water outdoes The Girl on the Train in just about every conceivable way.

Into the Water begins when Jules Abbot gets a call that her sister Nel is dead, drowned. This brings Jules back to the small town of Beckford where she grew up, and into a complicated web of small town dynamics, packed to the brim with deceit and betrayal. Before she died, Nel was working on a project about “The Drowning Pool,” a local piece of lore involving the mysterious deaths of women dating back to the 1700s, all of whom died at the same spot in the river. But how many of those women committed suicide, and how many were murdered? When Nel Abbot meets her end there, the mystery surrounding The Drowning Pool takes center stage, as everyone tries to make sense of what happened.

Into the Water is cleverly plotted, intricate, and nuanced; and sure, I was able to guess a few of the reveals, but some of them came as a surprise. I wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery/mysteries, but more importantly, I just enjoyed the ride. There are a lot of subplots in this story, but information is consistently revealed at a satisfying pace. Reading this book is like slowly assembling a jigsaw puzzle – it’s slow at times, but steady, and before you know it you’re completely sucked in and you’ve lost track of time, because you’re so focused on finding the next piece. For this reason, there isn’t necessarily one shocking reveal at the end: the final chapter is more of a quiet sort of ‘ah, of course’ moment, the last piece settling into place, but I was okay with that. I think I’ve read too many thrillers where the author tries too hard to be surprising and throws in an outlandish twist at the last moment, so I’ve come to favor this sort of denouement. It probably won’t make you gasp out loud, but it feels appropriate.

This book isn’t going to work for everyone. Keep this in mind: if you are someone who gets confused by a lot of names and frequent POV switches, you will find this book maddening. There are at least 10 different narrators, all of whom have boring names like Mark and Josh and Jules and Sean. I’m good with names, so this wasn’t an issue for me, but I understand why a lot of readers are turned off by the sheer amount of characters to keep track of in this book. It’s actually rather reminiscent of The Casual Vacancy in this regard (small town intrigue with a massive host of characters), so if you were someone who hated The Casual Vacancy for this reason, this probably won’t be for you.

One final note to consider if you’re thinking about reading this: trigger warning for rape. There’s nothing particularly graphic, and I actually thought it was dealt with rather sensitively (bringing to light questions of victim blaming, as well as the importance of educating young people about consent, and about “not saying no does not mean yes.”) That said, it’s a rather omnipresent thread in one character’s narrative, so if you’re triggered by this, you may want to skip this one.

If you were underwhelmed by The Girl on the Train, I’d still recommend giving Into the Water a shot. This is where Paula Hawkins really shows what she’s capable of, both in terms of quality of prose as well as the skillful execution of a much more nuanced story. I’m sure some people who loved The Girl on the Train won’t like this one as much – there’s no denying that it’s quite different, in tone and subject – but it worked for me. I enjoyed reading both The Girl on the Train and Into the Water, but after I finished the former I put it down with a sense of frustration and anticlimax, and with the latter I feel mostly content.